Tragic Death of a Pro-Life Father Challenges Church in India’s Christian Heartland
The inspiring life of Antony Akkaraparambil, an impoverished father of nine children, has focused attention on the need to support large Catholic families in the southern state of Kerala.
THRISSUR, India — Forty-three-old Antony Akkaraparambil could hardly write. He earned a living for his family of nine children and pregnant wife doing odd jobs of mason, plumber, water supplier and wood cutter.
The inspiring life of Akkaraparambil, known as “Simon,” came to a tragic end when he climbed on top of a 50-feet-high coconut tree on Feb. 12 to chop it into pieces: The tree collapsed, killing him, in his neighborhood of Adat in the Thrissur district of the southern Indian state of Kerala.
His funeral Mass the next day was celebrated by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Thrissur in the presence of dozens of pro-life activists. Ahead of the funeral, his friends and associates had promptly pooled money to buy a permanent tomb in the parish cemetery. In Kerala, only affluent families normally can afford to buy a permanent tomb space, as it costs a minimum of 150,000 rupees ($2,100) to 500,000 rupees.
“Many are contacting us to extend support to us these days. We hope and pray this support will continue,” Bindu, Simon’s widow, told the Register when this correspondent visited the grieving family a week later. However, Simon’s trust in God seemed to inspire them as they stood before his portrait and prayed with folded hands for the repose of his soul. In fact, his deep faith was manifest on the walls of the spartan house, with several Bible quotes that he had painted on the walls.
“Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” reads the passage of Luke 14:7 at the entrance door with a cross hanging on top.
“It was he who instilled the passion and confidence in me for carrying more children,” confided Bindu. “We had to face constant taunts of our own relatives and some others (including Catholics) ridiculing us for having ‘too many children.’”
When the family OB-GYN suggested stopping further pregnancies during his wife’s ninth pregnancy, Bindu said her husband told the doctor, “If you have an accident while driving home and die, could you stop it? Let us trust in God and live.”
The Power of Prayer
At a time when the tradition of evening family prayer has been declining in Kerala, Simon scheduled daily prayer at home. Whatever was his daily work, Simon would be home by 8pm to lead the family prayer for one hour. If he came home for lunch, Bindu said, he would ensure that all the children slept in the afternoon (schools are closed due to the COVID pandemic) so that they would not fall asleep during the prayer time later in the evening.
Simon survived several falls while at work, while cutting trees and breaking down buildings. In fact, his vertebra and hip disk were displaced six months ago. Doctors said the only option was a major surgery that his family couldn’t afford.
Poor as he was, Simon said, “I will pray.” In three months, he was back to normal work; then, shortly after, came the fatal fall from the coconut tree.
“Children are not liability, but assets,” Simon repeatedly told his children. Simon displayed a banner at their parish promoting pro-life initiatives and encouraging large families. However, his children were upset when the banner went missing and reported it to him.
Simon checked neighborhood cameras but could not trace how it disappeared.
He promptly took the parish priest, Father Joby Puthur, on his motorbike to the police station.
As the news spread, they got a call before reaching the police station notifying them that the banner had been located. “That was his passion for pro-life activities. He lived his faith,” remarked Father Puthur.
It was this passion that endeared the simple daily-wage-earner’s family to the Thrissur Archdiocese, which honored them as the “Big Family” during the Thrissur Archdiocese’s grand Buon Natale parade for three years in a row.
“His dream was to have a family like that of Jacob, with 12 children,” said Bindu, who miscarried their unborn child after Simon’s death. “I pray now that I am able to nurture them into God-fearing children, as he wanted.”
Right now, Bindu is grateful for the financial assistance that is pouring in. Following Simon’s death, the monthly support for the family was doubled by the Thrissur Archdiocese from 10,000 rupees to 20,000 ($280), while others are also chipping in.
“There will be a lot of sympathy and support right now. We will make sure they do not suffer,” Archbishop Thazhath told the Register.
Calls for Enhanced Assistance
Sabu Jose, the president of the Pro-Life Committee under the Family Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), who attended Simon’s funeral, told the Register that while the Thrissur Archdiocese has been active in supporting pro-life concerns, the Church in Kerala as a whole should step up support to help larger families.
The local Church in Kerala started speaking out forcefully in support of large families in the early 2000s, after the ratio of Christians in the state declined to 19% of the state’s 31.8 million people in the 2001 census. The ratio, which stood at more than 24% in the 1950s, had declined further to 18% in the 2011 census.
The Church campaign included street demonstrations after a state judicial commission in 2008 recommended a bill to penalize families with more than two children. A series of protests by the Pro-Life Committee, with participation of more than 5,000 large Catholic families in half a dozen conventions across the state, helped ensure the scuttling of that proposal.
The former chairman of the pro-life commission, Bishop Mathew Anikuzhikattil (who came from a family of 15 children and died in April), was quite vocal about the value of large families and was instrumental in backing demands for free education to children from larger families. The outspoken bishop’s exhortation for large families made headlines often.
Though the KCBC has asked the 32 dioceses of Kerala’s three rites (Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches) to coordinate and support large families at the diocesan level, requests for the formal adoption of a policy on the matter by the KCBC itself have been on the rise.
“We have discussed this demand and decided to leave it to the dioceses to implement it,” Bishop Paul Mullassery, chairman of KCBC’s Family Commission, told the Register.
The latest diocese to launch a program to support large families is Irinjalakkuda, which in mid-February set up a trust to help meet their needs, including the education of their children.
Bishop Mullassery, who heads the Latin Rite Diocese of Quilon, said that an intervention by the KCBC of a policy to support large families could lead to “negative propaganda” in the media, instead of constructive change at the ground level.
“We are concerned about the decline in population ratio,” he said. “We want large families, and there should be a proper system to support them, including for the education of the children.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.